I watch an MTV show called Catfish. I first saw the original documentary in 2010 with a group of friends in Newtown, Sydney. Back then, I thought the story was interesting and eerie and really liked the main characters. I did not think too much more about it.
Since being back in Australia on holiday and returning to world of Foxtel, I decided to introduce my Mum to the spin-off TV show. In essence, ‘Catfish: the Movie’ and ‘Catfish: the TV Show’ are about Americans in online relationships. They have never met their ‘partner’ in real life and are worried they are being lied to in some form or another. Often they doubt the other person is real at all.
In each episode the MTV team, led by Nev Schulman and Max Joesph, do some investigating and bring the couple together, revealing the truth. It always nerve-racking and entertaining. However it is also a bit heart-breaking watching these people realise they have been duped. That they have been in love with an image. Not a person. Nev and Max then try to uncover why the ‘Catfish’ felt they needed to create a fake persona to be worthy of love. This element has caught my attention more than anything else.
Another thing has happened since I have been back in Australia, I have been reminded of the way I am perceived in the western world. While I don’t really change too much country to country, cultural expectations and assumptions about my appearance do.
One of the ways I make money is through being a model. I do not like saying ‘I am a model’ anymore because that in itself is a lie. It is no longer my principal form of income however I still work from time to time. I have discovered over my 11 years in the industry, ‘model’ is often used mistakenly to describe a body type, not always the actual profession.
I am constructed with the components to fit the beauty mould for this century. I am 6 foot tall and out of proportion. My legs are much longer than my torso. I have green eyes and thick hair. I have straight teeth (after braces) and big breasts (which are cause of back problems and neck aches). I am a white female in my mid 20’s and am able-bodied.
I am not making this list to showcase reasons I am superior. I am making this list to show you that it is exactly that. A list of genetic attributes which when combined are celebrated in the western world, during this precise time period. As Cameron Russell put it in her TED Talk, “I won the genetic lottery.” My face and body are not everyone’s personal preference, however they project an image that is forced down the throats of the modern world.
Had I been born in a different century, for example in the 1600’s when shorter plus-sized woman were favoured, there is every chance I would have ended up in a circus.
As it happens in Fiji, where I live, my body type is not the portrayed image of beauty. Any modelling work I do at home, is to appeal to an international audience.
Back here, in Australia, a consumer-driven competitive western culture, I know my image will be either celebrated or punished in different social settings and by different people. I am just as likely to be admired for the way I look, as I am to be made to feel lesser. For example the other night when I was speaking about my Journalism degree a woman said “did you actually have to go to University? Didn’t you just smile and they handed you the degree?” She sniggered and other women in the room laughed along.
There are so many problems in the world today. A stranger assuming I am stupid and/or seductive because of my height and cup-size is not one of them. That is just a tiny prejudice on a planet of plenty. I would be truly stupid if I wasn’t thankful for the way I was made and appreciate the simple mathematical blessing.
Comments like those do spark my interest in the image women like me portray and why we (mostly those who have worked in the modelling industry) often actually perpetuate our own stereotypes. And I think, it comes down to this. We are taught to be, who and what, anyone wants us to be.
( Catfish anyone? )
It is important to acknowledge that unlike most other professions, to be a model, you don’t actually have to BE anything. Some may argue that you have to be professional, organised and patient. But that is not really the case. You just need to look a certain way. At the moment that way is tall and slim. Perhaps not quite as skinny as the 90’s but slim nonetheless. You have to be either classic or ‘interesting’. However you do not have to be, or be interested in, or be talented in, or know, or learn anything at all in particular.
Therefore you end up with a group of humans without much true commonality between them. Besides the way they appear and are treated. Which are both for the most part, out of their control.
Models (the job title) are a blank canvas. We are the empty page on which the creative teams paint. They create. Us. A story. A picture. Quite often on a job I noted that my hair was referred to as ‘the hair’. My face became ‘the face’. For some reason this did not (and does not) offend me. My body was officially a business and I was just the bored wanna-be writer inside that pretty little head, twiddling her thumbs and waiting for make-up to be over so I could open ‘the eyes’ and finish my crossword.
What I didn’t realise was happening, as perhaps many don’t, was that I was learning how to be reconstructed time and time again. I was learning how to be told who to be. I was learning to portray. I was learning how to be wiped clean and start fresh. I was learning to chase compliments and fear rejection. I was learning to compare elements of my exterior to others. I was learning to be who and what anyone wanted me to be. And I was learning this from a very early age.
Unfortunately of course this does not stop and start with work. “Model”, the job title, can easily become “model”, the human being. These ideas bleed out into society.
Image is very powerful. Everybody has one. Whether you are a model, Member of Parliament , mother, or all three.
Part of my image means this:
1- I know most women won’t like me when they first meet me. I know I have to earn that. (And that’s okay.)
2- I know most men will.
I know I am more likely to strike up a long conversation with a man than a woman the first time we meet. What I didn’t always know though, is that if I am not careful, this conversation is often just like getting my make-up done before a photo-shoot.
It can be the slow construction, of who this particular man imagines me to be. Just as when I am in front of the camera, often in front of bare eyes, its easy to simple manifest an idea.
Recently I was at a nightclub and I was dancing and doing shots. A man came up to me after watching me and said “you aren’t who I thought you were.” He was expressing his disappointment in my obvious non-wifey material. My innate reaction was shame, I wasn’t doing my job. I wasn’t being beautiful in his eyes. Then I said something I had never even contemplated before. (My inner cross-word girl must have been biting her tongue all these years)
“Well it’s really not my responsibility to be your dream girl.”
And off I went.
In essence this sort of set me free. Since then I dance however I goddamn please.
In a world that relies so much on appearance, both online and in the flesh, we are constantly reminded not to judge a book by its cover. Nothing is what it seems. This is indeed the underlying message of my new favourite MTV show.
But it is also true that in recent years, with the increasing obsession with beauty and fame, sometimes all we know how to create is in fact… a cover.
We accidentally turn ourselves into Beautiful Blank Books. This is true of many many many more than just the tall, lanky and fine boned. With filters and Facebook you do not need to have a modelling contract to learn the toxic behaviours of the chameleon. That poisonous side–affect is spreading. We fake laugh for selfies, we ‘like for like’ on Instagram, we copy, we compare, we create.
We All Catfish. Whether we change our profile picture or our persona to find love. Or likes. And I still can’t work out which one people are chasing more…
The idea of being ‘Picture Perfect’ is no longer just a 9-5 job for a select few. It drives all of us.
Ironically the phrase ‘Picture Perfect’ is sitting right next to me on the cover of this magazine. In reality, only a few weeks before this photoshoot for a magazine titled ‘Bride to Be’, I had left the long term love of my young life. I had been easily convinced I belonged somewhere else, with someone else, as someone else. (And then, slowly….nowhere really in particular.)
Before my grandfather died, he said he liked to look at this magazine and pretend I had finally settled down. Which will always make me a little sad.
But luckily! The magazine also says Make a Statement! While I am sure they are referring to jewellery and colour co-ordination, never-the-less, here is mine.
Don’t be a blank canvas unless you are being paid to be so. Even then. It is a sacrifice. Please. We are given these amazing brains and experiences and emotions and a planet and a people that still need us to be present. To think. To stand-up. To form educated opinions.
Beautiful Blank Books aren’t going to contribute anything. They aren’t going to fix anything. They aren’t going teach anything. We need to all stop being afraid to be more than a perception.
We need to let a few people down.
We can’t be liked (either with a blue thumb or with beating hearts) by everyone. We aren’t ever going to be able to fight for a world with more honesty and humanity if we, the next-to-lead generation, cannot even recognise either.